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Susan Taylor, as Model by Ken Ramsay, 1970s
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Atlantic City, Four Women, 1960s. John W. Mosley
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Black Hair Flag by Sonya Clark, 2010
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Untitled 21 by Sammy Baloji, Congo, Kathleen Boone Samuels Memorial Fund
The 1970s photograph of a bare-backed, hair-shorn model with large hoop earrings is our introduction to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts’ new exhibition, “Posing Beauty,” which opens Saturday. The image has appeared in promotional materials, and as the cover of the accompanying book by curator Deborah Willis. It’s an arresting image, and how we react to it might say less about the attractiveness of the model, Susan Taylor, than it does about our own expectations and frame of reference.
In gathering the collection of 84 photographs, Willis has said she wants to “tell a story about African-American culture, looking at the idea of beauty from 1890 to the present.” She raises questions about how beauty is expressed and perceived, and whether it’s embraced or ignored. As she puts it, “This exhibit questions the relationship between beauty and art by examining the representation of beauty and different attitudes about class, gender and aesthetics.”
The VMFA’s coordinating curator, Sarah Eckhardt, calls Willis “the expert in African-American photography.” Her collection includes photographs of the famous as well as the ordinary — portraits of Denzel Washington, Michael Jackson, John Lee Hooker and Black Panther committee member Kathleen Cleaver alongside scenes of regular folks at work and leisure — four young men admiring a new car in South Richmond in 1938, a Pittsburgh waitress in 1952, couples walking down the street in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood in the 1970s, people leaving a Chicago church on Easter Sunday in 1941.
A New York Times review of Willis’ book (Posing Beauty: African American Images From the 1890s to the Present) notes, “After centuries of exclusion and segregation in which African-American beauty existed on the margins of the culture, Willis offers readers a thoughtful and nuanced consideration of the relationship of beauty and power. She invites us to marvel at the glamour and elegance contained in the photographs, and in the process instructs us on how to expand the definition of beauty within our national imagination.”
Accompanying "Posing Beauty" is a companion exhibition, "Identity Shifts," comprising 35 paintings, sculptures and photographs from the museum’s collection, including some new works. “Beauty relates to identity,” Eckhardt says, and this exhibition explores how personal and cultural identity is formed and perceived.
“Identity Shifts” includes a 2010 work by Sonya Clark, chair of VCUArts Department of Craft/Material Studies, Black Hair Flag, a promised gift to the museum from Pamela and William Royall. Clark has woven Bantu knots and cornrows through a Confederate flag to form the stars and stripes of the U.S. flag. In an accompanying statement, she says, “I was reflecting on the complicated ways that American and Confederate histories coincide. But in a larger sense, it was my way of negotiating my identity as a black woman who recently moved to the South.” Clark is scheduled to talk about her work at the museum on July 17.
Another work lent by the Royalls, The Two Sisters by Kehinde Wiley, is an elegant 2012 oil-on-linen painting inspired by 18th and 19th century portraits.
A 1997 painting by the late Murry DePillars, longtime VCU School of the Arts dean, From the Mississippi Delta, was inspired by a play by Endesha Ida Mae Holland. In it, a child waves goodbye to the abuse she suffered in her native Mississippi, and dot patterns represent the protection of her ancestral guardians.
Upstairs at the VMFA, outside its African art gallery, an installation called “States of Change in Africa” continues the theme of identity exploration during the colonial and post-colonial eras. Curator Richard Woodward points out a barbershop sign in Ghana, painted after 1957, advertising the latest haircuts available during the new era of independence, with a proud display of the Ghanian flag and colors. Here the “Boeing 707” and the “Play Boy” replace traditional African styles. Nearby is a sculpture showing more traditional braided hair, harking back to an era when the economy relied on trading rather than cash.
Also in “States of Change” is a new acquisition, the photo montage Untitled 21 by Sammy Baloji shows black-and-white images from a copper-smelting complex during the colonial era in the Congo, set in front of a backdrop of the present-day, abandoned site.
Adjacent to that are two statues, one of Belgian colonial tax collector Maximilien Balot from 1931, representing the harsh rule under which the Pende people suffered — it was carved after he was killed by tribesmen. The other is a female ancestral figure; in contrast to Balot’s rigid stance, she appears relaxed, with knees bent. “What’s going on is a dual narrative of the Pende during the colonial era,” Woodward says.
"Posing Beauty" runs through July 26; tickets are $10, and include the "Identity Shifts" exhibition. On June 21, the VMFA will waive the fee during a free family day, “Celebrate African and African American Art — Free Style.”